I don’t often post my weekly sermons to this blog. My sermons are written for and preached to a very specific congregation in a very specific context, not to mention that sermons are primarily for hearing and not for reading.
I’m going to break that rule this week. While the above caveats are also true of this sermon, I think it also raises an important issue for the larger church. How do we listen to preaching? It’s a particularly important question for this hyper-partisan, hyper-critical moment in time. What I’m suggesting is that just as Christians read the bible differently than other literature, we listen to preaching differently than other spoken discourse. And if you don’t want to read the whole sermon, here’s the short answer. We listen to preaching with a posture of humility, expecting to hear a word from God.
Oh, and by the way, the sermon is based on Sunday’s lesson, Jeremiah 28:5-9. It’s a bit obscure and hard to understand without the larger context, which I explain in the opening part of the sermon. 5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
This morning I want to talk about how to listen to a sermon, or maybe more accurately, how not to listen to a sermon.
But first, I want to tell a story, the story that our first lesson is a part of. It’s a critical time in the political history of God’s chosen people, the nation Judah, about 600 years before Christ. There have been a series of pretty awful kings of Judah; now Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is becoming more and more powerful. In 594, the armies of Babylon swept into Judah and deposed King Jehoiachin and carried him off to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with a 21-year-old, the son of a former king; he would be a puppet of Nebuchadnezzar. Things looked pretty precarious for this tiny nation. Jeremiah consistently preached the message to Judah that their hard times were a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God. The prophet Jeremiah was fond of using object lessons to accompany his preaching. So, he got a big wooden yoke and placed it on his shoulders and said to the king, the priests, and the other rulers, this yoke symbolizes how for the next 3 generations, you all – God’s people – will be under the yoke of the Babylonians. Certainly not the kind of news that any of the ruling class wanted to hear. So, in comes Hananiah, a rival prophet with a very different message. Hananiah told them, “Don’t worry. Within a few months, Nebuchadnezzar will be gone; his power is waning, and we’ll have nothing to worry about.” Now that was more like it. That’s what the people wanted to hear.
Of course, we know how the story turned out. We know that Jeremiah was precisely right. Within a decade, the Babylonian army would return and crush Judah, destroying the Temple, burning the city, and carrying the living inhabitants off to 3 generations of exile in Babylon. But at the time, no one knew who was right. Turns out the uncomfortable, challenging word of Jeremiah was the true word from the Lord, even though the people desperately wanted to believe the easier, comforting word from Hananiah.
Which brings me to wanting to talk to you about how to listen to a sermon. Most of us, and I would include me in that group, would rather hear a message of comfort and ease than a message of dire warning and challenge. When the world is falling in around us, we come to church to hear a word of comfort. The bible definitely offers that, and preaching definitely offers that. But not always. We all know there’s another side to the biblical message. If you read the bible in its totality you know that there’s also rebuke and challenge. There’s an awful lot in the bible that is uncomfortable, that demands a change in our lives, in our community, in the world. The bible recognizes that sin and evil and death are always trying to drag us away from God’s ways to our own selfish ways and the ways of the world.
Someone once told me, “Your job in preaching is to bring us comfort and strength.” I said, “Yes, and to challenge you.” And they replied, “yes, but more comfort.” You see the dilemma.
We believe that in both the bible and preaching, God speaks. Let’s consider the bible for a moment. We know that we don’t read the bible in the same way that we read other literature. We read the bible, not critically, but humbly, submitting ourselves to its authority, expecting as we read it, that we will hear a word from God. That’s how we listen to preaching. We don’t listen to a sermon the same way we listen to a speech or a news report. We listen to preaching expecting a word from God. We listen humbly, submitting ourselves to the authority of the Word. Not the authority of the preacher, but the authority of the spoken Word.
That’s hard to remember in such a hyper-partisan and hyper-critical moment in time. For many of us, our opinions about the way the world is ordered are set in stone and our kneejerk reaction to everything we hear is, “I agree,” or “I disagree.” But when we listen to preaching, our first response isn’t about whether we agree or disagree.
There are two important sets of questions that we should ask. The first set is:
- What is God trying to say to me here?
- Where is the good news of what God has done for me in Jesus?
- What is God inviting me to be?
- What is God empowering me to do?
The second question comes into play especially if we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s important to sit in that place of discomfort, to linger there for a while.
- Is there something in my life that needs to change?
- Why does it make me uncomfortable?
- Is there some long held belief that God is challenging?
- Is this somehow related to my ego and to the idols that I set up in my life, those things that become hyper-important to me?
- Is there something I’m trying to protect, something that maybe I cherish too much?
We don’t like to change and we don’t like to be changed. Yet our faith is based on the premise that God is always at work transforming us from the kingdom of the Enslaver to the reign of God. That means God is changing us.
I want to be clear. I’m not suggesting that everything I say is infallible. I am as capable of mistakes as anyone. I preach under the authority of the community and I’m accountable to the community for what I preach – this congregation, my bishop, my denomination. Instead, I’m suggesting that questions about agree or disagree are not the first questions we should be asking, and if we’re listening for a word from God, maybe we never even get around to those kinds of questions.
I want to talk about one more thing, and I realize it may be uncomfortable for some of us. One of the most common comments I receive about my preaching is that it is sometimes political. My gentle response is that if I’m going to be faithful to the gospel and my ordination vows, then my preaching has to be political. Did you hear our lesson for today? Jeremiah and his opponent are preaching in the middle of a geo-political crisis. They are speaking into the situation in which God’s people were living. They preach about where God is in that crisis and about seeing the situation as God sees it. Do you why preaching has to be political? Or maybe a better word is social? Because God cares about human communities. God cares about how we relate to each other, how we form ourselves socially, how we care for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable. Preaching calls us to consider the values of the kingdom of God and to call out our leaders and our policies that are in opposition to the values of the kingdom, regardless of who or what party is in power. The gospel is social because sin is social, systemic, and cultural. The gospel is personal because we as individuals are caught up in these social sins and must be saved out of them. This is what’s possible in Christ. This is what God does in us and through us.
Knowing God’s will and what the word is from God in real time can be tricky. Yet we believe that God is speaking. God has spoken primarily through God’s son, who in his death and resurrection has given us life with God. We live confidently from that promise; and we live humbly and expectantly, knowing that God is at work in us transforming us, and through us transforming the world. Listen. I listen. You listen. We listen together. God is speaking. Dear God, give us ears so we can hear.